Drafting a living will might not be high on your to-do list — but maybe it should be.
A living will is a legal document that details which medical treatments you want — or don’t want — if you’re ever incapacitated or unable to make decisions for yourself.
Don’t get it confused with a last will and testament, a legal document that spells out who inherits your assets after you die. A living will applies only to your end-of-life medical care wishes.
Living wills are also called advance directives, especially when they’re paired with a durable power of attorney. You can draft these documents for free in less than an hour.
We’ll show you how.
How to Make a Living Will in 4 Steps
If you’re ever incapacitated and can’t communicate, a living will and power of attorney can inform your doctors about the type of medical care you want.
Without one, your doctors will rely on your closest family members to make medical decisions on your behalf.
1. Outline Your End-of-Life Instructions
First, you need to think through the kind of life-sustaining treatments and procedures you’re willing to undergo — and under what circumstances.
This can include your preferences on:
- Feeding tubes
- Palliative care (relief for pain)
- How you define quality of life
- How much effort should be made to keep you alive if you are gravely ill
- Organ donation
- Resuscitation if your breathing or heartbeat stops
Confronting your own mortality isn’t easy, but writing down your health care wishes in a living will can spare your family members from a difficult situation later, said Jaclyn Roberson, a senior partner at Roberson Duran Law in San Antonio.
“When you hear stories where patients are kept on life support for years or even decades — despite their loved ones’ insistence that they would not have wanted to remain on life support — it’s usually because the patient didn’t execute an advance directive,” Roberson told The Penny Hoarder.
Keep in mind that a living will becomes effective only once two physicians separately determine that you’re no longer capable of making medical decisions for yourself. So as long as you’re conscious and able to communicate, health care providers will always listen to you instead of your living will.
You may have a general idea of what you want your end-of-life care to look like, but it’s hard to predict the future. That’s why the next step — naming a durable power of attorney — is so important.
2. Consider Naming a Durable Power of Attorney as Well
Many experts recommend creating a durable power of attorney along with your living will.
A durable power of attorney is a legal document that appoints a person — usually called your health care proxy or agent — who can make important health care decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to do so.
Why is it important to appoint a health care agent if you’ve already detailed your wishes in a living will?
“It can help you in future situations that you have no control over and can’t predict in advance,” said Sandra Choi, an estate planning attorney at Choi Law Firm. “You can certainly detail health care preferences and share your opinions (in a living will), but the medical power of attorney assigns the actual decision-making process to another adult who will act on your behalf.”
For example, you might go in for a routine surgery but remain unconscious after the procedure. The doctor will propose a few options for the next operation.
“Your health care proxy, under the medical power of attorney, will make the choice,” Choi explained.
Your health care agent will be the point of contact for your medical team and can make decisions about anything you didn’t cover in your living will.
In some states, a living will and durable power of attorney are outlined in the same document.
You can appoint anyone as your health care agent, including your spouse, an adult child, a sibling, a friend or even your lawyer.
You can also name alternate health care proxies in case your first choice is unwilling or unable to act on your behalf.
Generally, a power of attorney expires if you become incapacitated, but a durable power of attorney remains valid even if you can’t make decisions for yourself.
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3. Write Your Living Will
You don’t need to hire an attorney to make a valid living will. You can write a living will on your own, either from scratch or using a template.
Unlike a last will and testament, a living will is much easier to create, saving you time and money.
Here are a few options to create a free living will.
Hospitals, nursing homes and hospice facilities: Medical facilities have forms for living wills you can fill out upon request. Staff members can usually assist you with the process, too.
Your state or local government website: You can find living will and power of attorney forms on each state’s bar association website. Click here to find your state’s website.
Your doctor’s office: If you’re age 65 or older, Medicare covers voluntary advance care planning for free as part of your yearly wellness visit. You can talk about an advance directive with your doctor and they can help you fill out the forms during your visit.
DoYourOwnWill: This website provides various estate planning documents, including living wills. You can create and revise your legal documents on DoYourOwnWill.com for free.
FreeWill: This website offers instructions on how to make a living will for free in minutes.
The National Hospice and Palliative Care Organization: This organization maintains advance directive forms for download for all 50 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico.
4. Finalize and Notarize Your Living Will
States vary in requirements for witnesses, notarization and other details needed to make your living will valid.
Generally, you’ll need to sign an advance directive in front of at least two witnesses and get it notarized according to your state’s laws.
Make sure to review the living will and its instructions carefully before signing.
What to Do After Creating a Living Will
You should print several copies of your living will and share them with your doctor, hospital staff and your health care proxy. Anyone who is likely to be involved in your health care should have a copy.
After all, a living will doesn’t do you any good if no one knows it exists or where to find it.
It’s also important to discuss your end-of-life wishes with your family. They don’t need to know every detail of your living will, but giving them an overview of your wishes can save them a lot of stress and confusion later.
Your views on end-of-life care may change over time, so it’s wise to review your living will and durable power of attorney every few years.
If you decide to rewrite your advance directive, inform the people who have a copy of your old living will and provide them with the updated version.
Rachel Christian is a Certified Educator in Personal Finance and a senior writer for The Penny Hoarder. She focuses on retirement, investing, taxes and life insurance.